data spreadsheet new size
Credit: By Jeff Hitchcock on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

To build an engaged audiece for their data stories, journalists should think about ways to make the numbers more personal to the reader and more connected to the community.

Data journalism enthusiasts from around the country gathered at BBC Birmingham on 22 November for the first ever Data Journalism UK conference, a packed day of keynote speakers and practical workshops on "finding stories in structured information” and the current data reporting landscape.

The event was hosted and organised by Paul Bradshaw, lecturer at Birmingham City University and founder of the Online Journalism Blog. Here are a few highlights about the current landscape of data journalism from the day’s discussions.

Display data that’s personal and useful

Claire Miller, senior data journalist at Trinity Mirror, emphasised the importance of personalising data for readers in her keynote talk.

“The big thing with data is that we have to find how to make it interesting to people’s lives,” she said.

Numbers that explain new tax rates or recent building legislation are nearly always interesting. But if you don’t tell people how it might affect them, most readers won’t see why it is important.

“The idea of making news personal is something we can do so much better now with online news. People really, really like talking about themselves. And giving them an opportunity to talk about themselves will turn them towards news.”

Another recurring theme throughout the day was producing data stories that were useful as well as personal. And this means that the useful way of telling a story may not always be the prettiest way.

An interactive map with different colours showing varying levels of poverty might sound like a good way to tell the story of deprivation in certain communities.

But a more personal way of telling the same story might be to turn that data into a widget and allow the user to enter a post code to see what the numbers say about their exact area.

Maps can only tell so much

Miller had some hard truth to speak to map-loving journalists: “Sometimes telling the story with words is more useful.”

At Trinity Mirror, Miller has run into problems with maps adjusting for mobile. Due to the small size of the screen, the regions of a map become hard to see and zooming is an awkward user experience.

Another limitation of visualising geographic data on a map is the limitation on how much it communicates. If the data is on a singular issue like poverty rates or GCSE scores, sometimes a choropleth map will work great.

But as soon as a map requires hovering or an input from the user, mobile readers are put at a disadvantage. Much like websites, data visualisations should be created with the mobile user in mind first.

Philip Nye, researcher at the Education Datalab, also pointed out that sometimes stories are better told as dashboards rather than a traditional article with an embedded map or chart.

Working with semi-open data

The age of open data has arrived, but speakers agreed the way data is handled needs to improve. Too many governments, businesses and NGOs are still issuing data in annoying formats like PDFs, which require a fair bit of scraping and cleaning to extract.

Stuart Harrison of the Open Data Institute recommended that data journalists look for sources on open data sites like Octopub and WikiData – journalists can also contribute to open data by publishing their clean spreadsheets on Octopub for others to use.

Data scraping and computer programming can provide open data without asking so nicely. William Perrin, founder of media network Talk About Local, previewed how his new Local News Engine will open up difficult to process data from governments to small, local outlets.

Funded by Google’s Digital News Initiative, the searchable database allows local newspapers to cross-reference a search of someone’s name appearing in the paper with how many times it appears in court records.

Where do we go from here?

Stories like the Panama Papers and MPs' expenses have displayed the impressive potential of finding stories in datasets, and then explaining those numbers to a curious audience.

But not all speakers at the event were entirely convinced that data journalism has emerged as a widely accepted skill in the newsroom.

Marc Ellison, senior data journalist at BBC Scotland, said he had to pitch his job to the company and to persuade them of its usefulness. Even then, he was only started with a six-week contract.

“Being a data journalist in the newsroom, I feel like somewhat of a unicorn. People don’t know what to do with me.”

It’s a sentiment shared by many journalists working with data. But three years later, Ellison is still working at the BBC and still breaking stories that other reporters normally wouldn’t find.

Andy Dickinson, hyperlocal journalism academic at the University of Central Lancashire, sees localising datasets as the next necessary step for data journalism.

He explained that, in their current state in national newspapers and websites, the numbers can feel too abstract and impersonal. His most recent project, funded by MediaMill, explored ways to create a mutually beneficial gateway of open data between local councils and small news organisations.

Miller pointed out that working with data should become part of every journalist’s skillset. In today’s newsrooms, she sees data stories falling into four categories: investigative reporting, everyday stories, useful interactive data and data visualisations. The key now is bringing those skills to journalists who aren’t used to handling data.

Benjamin Cooley is a freelance writer and current postgraduate student studying digital journalism at Goldsmiths University. He is fascinated by all things data journalism and can often be found writing about it on his blog or tweeting about the news.

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